History of American Exploration from 1540 to 1575

About the history of American exploration from 1540 to 1575 including voyages of Roberval and Frobisher.


1542-1544 Cabeza de Vaca explored the Paraguay River, then traveled on to Puerto de los Reyes. When he returned to Asuncion he was deposed by Domingo Martinez de Irala, chained to a ring bolt on a ship, and sent back to Spain, where he was jailed and finally exiled to Oran, Algeria. Eventually, the banishment was lifted and he returned to Spain, where he died in poverty.

1542-1543 Roberval traveled up the St. Lawrence, having marooned his niece Marguerite de La Roque on an island with her maid for sinning with a young man (who swam to join them). The crew wintered at Cartier's settlement near Quebec. His pilot, Jean Alfonce, in his book La Cosmographie, claimed to have explored the Saguenay, where he discovered Cap de Norumbeque, a place inhabited by tall sun-worshipers who spoke a language like Latin and wore sables.

1542-1543 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo (died 1543), a Portuguese who had soldiered for Cortes, sailed the California coast in two ships, searching for the legendary island of California ruled by the queen of the Amazons and for sources of silver and gold. He reached San Miguel (now San Diego), then went north to Big Sur, where "so great was the swell of the ocean that it was terrifying to see." He went as far as Bodega Bay. After returning to the Santa Barbara Channel Islands, Cabrillo died of complications from a broken arm. His successor, Bartolome Ferrer, again sailed north and may have reached what is now Klamath, Calif. Besieged by storms and run aground, he and his crew promised to make a pilgrimage to a shrine of Our Lady "en carne" (in their shirts) if they survived, a vow they were happy to fulfill.

1544 A French ship rescued Marguerite de La Roque, whose lover and maid had died (so had her newborn baby) and who had barely survived the rigors of two winters on the island, during which she had killed three bears, one of them a polar bear. Her exploits were immortalized in the Heptameron, a collection of short tales by Marguerite, queen of Navarre.

1545 A Spanish expedition setting out from Peru discovered silver mines in Potosi, Bolivia.

1562 When one of his ships sank and the others became overcrowded, English slaver Sir John Hawkins set some of his sailors ashore on the Gulf Coast of Mexico. Among them was Englishman David Ingram, who walked all the way to Nova Scotia, where he was saved by a French ship. Home in English pubs, he regaled his drinking companions with tales of Norumbega, up the Penobscot River, where people wore jewelry inset with thumb-sized pearls and lived in round houses held up by pillars of crystal, gold, and silver. There were, he said, red sheep and other fabulous beasts, among them one with floppy ears like a bloodhound (a moose?).

1576 Martin Frobisher (1535?-1594), a Yorkshireman with a shady past as a pirate, left England searching for the Northwest Passage in two ships, the Gabriel and the Michael. Both reached Greenland, but the crew of the Michael, not trusting the icy seas, returned to England with the erroneous report that the Gabriel had been "cast awaye." Frobisher had come close to disaster; at one point he had heroically cut away the mizzenmast in a raging storm to keep the Gabriel from foundering. The group may have been the first Europeans in the Renaissance to contact Eskimos, whom Frobisher described as "like unto Tartars, with long black hair, broad faces, and flat noses." Five sailors were kidnapped by the Eskimos. Frobisher brought a piece of black stone (actually iron pyrite, or fool's gold) back to England, where it was falsely assayed as gold-bearing. Before this error was discovered, Frobisher had hauled 1,500 tons of the stone to England. His discoveries: a bay later named for him (Frobisher Bay) and Resolution Island.

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